A short-lived, but influential, Gang

Times Staff Writer

INDIO -- The Coachella Festival has a little tradition going in which an influential band from the past makes a reunion appearance. Last year it was the Pixies, the year before Iggy & the Stooges.

On Sunday the original lineup of Gang of Four, the late-'70s band from Leeds, England, whose spare, taut sound and social commentary made it a short-lived but lasting force in rock, made its first U.S. appearance since 1981.

The band took the main stage in the late afternoon and delivered its vintage agit-rock with power and precision, reviving such songbook staples as "Damaged Goods," "Anthrax" and "At Home He's a Tourist."

Rangy singer Jon King raced around the stage and stabbed the air with urgent gestures, guitarist Andy Gill sounded his stinging alarms, and bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham locked into the funk-rooted grooves that made Gang of Four a distinctly different but compatible companion to punk.

While most of the crowd was seeing Gang of Four for the first time, young rock fans have been experiencing its influence with mounting regularity. Since the group disbanded in 1984, such bands as the Red Hot Chili Peppers have cited its influence, but in the last year or so, more young acts have emerged with a sound and/or point of view traceable to Gang of Four.

Just during the two days of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Futureheads and Bloc Party (both from England) and Radio 4 (from New York) played shows that were in large measure tributes to the Gang's terse, clipped sound -- a combination of George Clinton funk, dub reggae and the minimalist guitar attack of Englishman Wilco Johnson, from the band Dr. Feelgood.

In fact, it was this current proliferation of Gang of Four acolytes that inspired the four musicians to reconvene.

"We started a different sort of conversation with our audience and a different sort of conversation in music," King, 49, said before Sunday's set.

"I think it's kind of obvious that this different conversation now means something to all these young bands. Loads and loads of kids come along and say, 'Is this the band that Franz Ferdinand copied, or the band that influenced the Chili Peppers?' So that's why we decided to do this."

Gang of Four might have been influential, but it was always too left field (and, perhaps, too left wing) to succeed commercially. And the reunion by the four musicians is strictly temporary, with some limited touring planned, as well as an odd album in which they'll re-record some of their songs and pair them with new remixes. Rhino Records will also reissue the group's 1979 debut album, "Entertainment!," on May 17.

Then it will be back to their day jobs. King runs a news production company in London, Gill is a record producer, Burnham teaches college in Boston and Allen has a music-related website based in Portland, Ore. They'll leave the legacy to the new generation.

"The subject matter in popular culture has been contracting and contracting and contracting," King said. "People starting bands are saying, 'Can't we do something different, find a way out of the drum machine, find a way out of these boring stories, find a guitar that sounds like a guitar instead of 17 effects?

"Who wants to be an average person? The four of us wanted to be great. We failed [commercially] in many ways, but the great thing for me is that some of those things that we tried to do have started up something else. And I'm so proud of that."

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